Solo travel in Alaska – going wild in Alaska’s Katmai National Park
It’s a cool summer morning in Alaska’s Katmai National Park and I’m standing behind a line of bushes, with a small group of fellow wildlife photographers, waiting – and hoping – for a bear sighting.
To my left, spruce trees dating back hundreds of years lead into a thick forest – while to my right, waves gently lap onto a rocky beach. The sun is bright in the cobalt sky with just a few billows of Cirrus clouds up high, and the scent of woody tree bark fills the air.
The lush vegetation and the abundance of salmon at this time of the year makes Katmai National Park, on the Alaska Peninsula, a well-known Brown bear habitat. Earlier this morning, our group had set out on a small plane from the city of Seward, nearly 225 miles away – each person hoping for an extraordinary encounter along this remote Alaskan coastline.
Suddenly, without retracting his gaze from the forest, our guide holds out an arm. A move that tells us ‘be quiet, don’t move’. Within seconds, a female Brown bear and her two cubs appear from the woods and head steadily towards in a flowing stream. The cubs grapple and tease each other, while the mother occasionally turns around, as mums do, to check they are still following.
“They can’t be more than 18 months old,” he says as the female bear paces up and down along the pebble bank, working out the best place to cross. She picks a spot and takes to the water, stopping abruptly in the middle of the flow. I watch in awe as her powerful paw comes down hard and her nose dips beneath the surface. As she lifts her head, she has a salmon gripped firmly between her teeth.
Where the wild things are
Located in the far northwest of the North American continent, Alaska has an estimated population of 800,000 people and is America’s largest state. The capital, Juneau, is one of the few state centres not connected by the US highway system thanks to its only land border being with Canada. However, being cut off from the rest of the country has its advantages – nature has taken the centre stage in Alaska.
Most international flights arrive in Anchorage, and this is the starting point for some of the most beautiful train journeys in the world.
The four-hour 15-minute journey south to Seward – where many of the state’s most extraordinary wildlife experiences depart from – takes in some of Alaska’s most jaw-dropping scenery. In the Placer Valley, whisps of cloud hang just below the snow-capped mountain tops and wildflowers bloom among lush carpets of green grass. Beady-eyed travellers might spot caribou and Bald eagles.
The Inside Passage and beyond
Once in Seward, book in a day trip to the rugged Chiswell Islands, where seabirds such as Puffins and Cormorants nest in their thousands. En route, you can spot Sea otters, Humpback whales and, if you’re lucky, resident Killer whales.
The boat also visits the spectacular Holgate and Aialik glaciers – and there are very few things more humbling than witnessing the loud cracking and calving of an ice field. Pack a warm jacket, beanie and gloves for that time spent on the outer decks.
Wildlife photography experiences to Katmai National Park also leave from Seward. Within the park, Geographic Harbour’s remote location enables solitary encounters with the bears – similar to the one I experienced – while further inland, the cascades of Brooks Falls are a more accessible and popular spot.
If you find yourself with a few days to spare, fly to the small southern city of Ketchikan – where you can muck in with one of Alaska’s vital trades, the King Crab fisheries. Here, in the midst the famous Inside Passage, The Bering Sea Crab Fishermen’s Tour – as seen on the Discovery Channel’s television series, Deadliest Catch, offers day trips to witness crab catching in action – a wild and fascinating insight into the industry.
Where nature and culture combine
Meanwhile, the seven and a half hour Denali Star journey from Anchorage to Fairbanks, via Denali National Park, winds north of Anchorage, through the stunning Chugach and Talkeetna Mountains – and across the Knik and Matanuska Rivers. You can stop off at any of the stations along the way.
In the tiny town of Talkeetna, stop in at the West Rib deli and pub to get to know the residents, while the Dancing Leaf Gallery is a wonderful place to see the work of local artisans. Back on the train, enjoy the spectacular views of Mount Denali, the tallest peak in North America, before reaching the park.
Car hire companies are available at the station as you approach Denali and while there is plenty of lodge-style accommodation available, I recommend booking into one of the six campsites instead. Lying awake listening out for the gentle patter of a Brown bear was one of my most treasured moments.
Around Denali, Rangers lead hikes and bike rides for different fitness abilities. Each evening, during sunset, take a short drive to experience this wilderness at its most beautiful. In autumn, the Northern Lights can be seen from the Savage River.
Fairbanks – the final stop on the Denali Star route – is home to the Athabascan Indian and Iñupiaq communities and should not be missed. Here, Alaska’s indigenous cultures come to life through traditional storytelling, dancing and drumming.
The best time to travel in Alaska is from late spring (May) to late summer (September), which is when Brown bears are most active – and when tour operators, national parks and accommodation are consistently open. Alaskan winters, meanwhile, can be brutal – so it’s not unusual for tourism businesses to shut up shop during the winter months.
Although travel in Alaska is generally safe, it is wise to take the same precautions you would take in any other rural region. Always let someone (either local or at home) know where you are going and stick to public routes rather than back streets. Avoid hiking solo and do not walk alone at night. Be sure to pre-order a taxi for journeys you must make after dark.
Typical trips to America might involve big city lights and all-you-can-eat buffets, but Alaska offers something much deeper for the discerning solo traveller.
It opens up a raw, mostly untouched wilderness for you to explore in your own time. This humbling experience is one of the best adventures I have ever had.